Huerfano County, Colorado

NOTICE All data and photos on this website are Copyrighted by Karen Mitchell. Duplication of this data or photos is strictly forbidden without legal written permission by the Copyright holder.
New Center Becomes Reality after 20 Years
Huerfano World, April 8, 1993 By Nancy Christofferson
Contributed by Louise Adams

The new Huerfano County Medical Center/Colorado State Veterans Nursing Home-Walsenburg is finally a reality. The facility on Highway 160 West will be open Monday, April 12.

The opening follows nearly two decades of negotiations, studies and plans to locate a veteran's nursing home in Walsenburg. For at least five of those years, proposals have been considered to combine the hospital and Veterans home.

The current facility will observe its 30th anniversary this fall. Huerfano Memorial Hospital was formally dedicated Dec. 1, 1963 and opened Dec. 5, after a nearly three-year, concentrated effort by numerous community members and organizations.

The need for the hospital became apparent in early December 1960 when Drs. James M. Lamme, Senior and Junior, announced the closure of their hospital, located at the corner of Seventh and Albert Streets for 40 years.

Shortly afterward, volunteers, mostly from the Walsenburg Junior Woman's Club, began circulating petitions to form a county hospital district. About the time of the closure of Lamme Hospital in late January 1961, Carl Tesitor, president of the Huerfano County Chamber of Commerce and member of the proposed Hospital Board, reported enough signatures, 2,584, had been secured.

Members of the proposed Board met in May with state officials and representatives of the Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities, which operated hospitals on three continents.

The same month, the hospital district was approved. On May 9, 1961, Tesitor was sworn in by District Court Clerk Mina Yourick as president, Jeannette Thach, secretary-treasurer, and Edward Wilkins, Jr., Proctor Hayes and George Habib, members. Their work was cut out for them.

Word was received in July that the Mennonite organization had agreed to run the hospital and the next month the Board viewed floor plans for the proposed 20-bed facility. Later in August Tesitor announced a $220,000 federal grant had been secured. It was a good start toward the erection of the $600,000 structure.

An election was held in October and a bond issue of $250,000 was overwhelmingly passed.

Meanwhile, funds were being collected from other sources. The junior Woman's Club promoted the drive to its number one community project and turned its $5,000 prize money earned for their efforts over to the hospital district. A grant was received from the Boettcher Foundation. Organizations and individuals made small to very large donations. First National Bank in Walsenburg and Mr. and Mrs. E.C. Wadhams gave the land.

On Nov. 12, 1962, the contract for building was signed with H.W. Houston Construction Company of Pueblo and ground was broken almost immediately. The new hospital boasted all the latest in equipment for a small facility. It was complete with X-ray, operating, delivery and emergency rooms, paging and buzzer systems, a very modern kitchen, fire alarms and a laboratory. Rev. Allen Erb of the Mennonite Board was named administrator.

Dr. Lamme, Sr. president of the medical staff, his son, vice-president and Dr. William A. Merritt, secretary. Soon after the hospital opened Dr. Arthur B. Vialpando and Dr. Ralph J. Pagnotta joined the staff. An extensive consulting staff assisted with radiology, pathology and other specialized areas.

Maude Swartzendruber of Aguilar was named director of nursing. Her staff consisted of Dorothy Richman, Mary Ann Nardini, Marie Pfaffenhauser, Rose Stafford, Charlotte Conder and Betty Menardi, all Registered Nurses; Jennie Schmidt, Amelia Micheli and Andrea Romero, Licensed Practical Nurses and Frances Bustos, Practical Nurse. Margaret Williams, Constance Chavez, Lillian Galvan and Joseph Villalon filled out the staff.

Other employees included Lee Schlabach, X-ray technician; Betty Jean Ridge and Roberta Lee Krier, laboratory technicians; Frances Lenzotti, Jean Marie Rogers and Dorothy Weaver, office; Ella Mae Wagner, Mary Dixon, Margaret Tice, Caroline Vallejo and Esta Galassini, dietary; and Richard A. Weaver and Dorothy Wagner, maintenance and housekeeping.

One of the first patients was Robert L. Hudson, then of Pampa, TX, but in the process of moving to his Huerfano County ranch. Injured in a jeep mishap and hospitalized, Hudson was very disappointed New Year's Day to discover the hospital had no television and thus he missed seeing Texas beat Navy in the Cotton Bowl. Missing his home team's victory spurred him to donate $200 for an antenna and wiring for a TV set so others would not share this same cruel loss. Employee Jennie Schmidt gave another $100 and soon a television was enjoyed by patients.

Another early patient was Mrs. John O'Donnell, whose son Ronald Eugene was the first child born in the hospital, on Dec. 15. For this, she won $25 which must have been most welcome since little Ronnie was her seventh child.

Rev. Erb reported that during its first month of operation, the daily average of patients was 9.8 with 48 percent occupancy of beds. Five babies were born. In January, the daily average rose to 12.8 patients and the occupancy to 71 percent. Four babies were born, including the first of 1964 on Jan. 2, to Mr. and Mrs. Joseph F. Martinez. Erb said 118 patients had been treated, 49 in December, 59 in January. In February, the occupancy rate rose to 81 percent and eight more babies were born.

On Jan. 6, 1964, an organizational meeting took place for a volunteer's association. About 30 attended and agreed not to call it an auxiliary to avoid scaring off male members. Their goal was to coordinate volunteer efforts of Gray Ladies, Candy Stripers and other organizations. Dues were $1 per year for active members, $3 for non-active. $25 would buy a lifetime membership. Anyone have one of those?

Mrs. Tony Correnti was elected president of the Hospital Volunteers. Other officers were Mrs. Frank Mauro, Jr., vice-president; Mrs. William B. Schafer, recording secretary; Miss Frances Nelson, corresponding secretary; Mrs. C. Albert Anderson, treasurer. Also on the Board was Mrs. Ernest Wadhams.

Teen-Aids, the local version of Candy Stripers, organized Jan. 16, 1964. By mid-February, there were 48 members. Some of these girls helped Catherine Chatin celebrate her 93rd birthday in the hospital Feb. 9.

After the first year of operation, Lee Schlabach, promoted from the X-ray room to business manager and acting administrator after the departure of Rev. Erb in December, said 2,604 patients had been treated. Overall occupancy was 83 percent, an average of 17 patients per day. Thirty-four people were employed. Payroll for the first year amounted to $87,480 of the total $188,512 operating expenses.

After several years it was realized the 20-bed (17 beds for surgical patients, three for maternity) facility was inadequate. Plans were drawn for a 6,000 square foot, $250,000 addition which would contain six private rooms, six semi-private, a five-bed pediatric ward, examining and treatment room, medical library and an office for the director of nursing.

Houston Construction was again hired with a low bid of $186,900. Building began March 8, 1966 and was to be complete by Sept. 24.

Only a month late, the addition was formally dedicated Oct. 23. It opened in November.

Apologetically, Administrator Schlabach in December announced a raise in rates, to $21 for a semi-private room and to $27.75 for a private one. He explained this was the first raise, except for a 50 a day hike to cover the expense of installing telephones in the rooms!

In December 1966, the hospital had a 74 occupancy rate with an average of 25.9 patients per day. Fifty-two employees were on the roster.

Meanwhile, on July 1, 1966, Medicare was put into effect. Many changes were coming for the medical profession and one of them was spiraling costs. Paperwork became a nightmare. Lawyers discovered the fertile field of malpractice suits. Huerfano Memorial felt the impact of all the changes and gradually, profits vanished. Physical impacts were also long suffered as cracks appeared as the hospital settled in the sifting shale and soil. Costly repairs were made to foundations and walls, and retaining walls were placed on the hillside behind the hospital.

With the expiration of the contract with the Mennonite Health Resources March 31, 1986, the Hospital Board became self-governing. Members were Charles Masinton, Don Kordis, John McNabb, John Stroh and Bob Tripp (Carl Tesitor had recently resigned after 25 years of service). In the May 6 election, Bob Armour and Ann Laney replaced Stroh and Tripp and the Board was reorganized. Bill Watts, interim administrator since late 1985, was made permanent.

In 1987, while the hospital sought a sponsoring agency, city and county officials were discussing how to raise $1.5 million as their share of a 120-bed veteran's home. By then, Walsenburg was climbing on the list of possible sites for such a facility, and hopes were high. The cost was to be $4.5 million.

Huerfano Memorial hit rock bottom in December 1987 when it was announced payroll could not be made. County commissioners agreed to release up to $165,000 for its needs. Chief of Staff Dr. Joseph Sierra resigned and Dr. David Neece replaced him.

The Hospital Board negotiated with several larger hospitals for a management plan. Parkview in Pueblo was considered, as well as Porter in Denver. Rocky Mountain Adventist Health Systems of Denver was finally approved and this arrangement is still working successfully.

After several inspections in 1988 revealed more structural deficiencies, hospital and county officials began seriously planning to combine a new hospital with the vet's home, now approved but not funded.

Paul M. Norman from Illinois was hired as administrator in October 1988, taking over his duties in November. Under his leadership hospital finances gradually turned around and for the past two years, profits realized.

The veteran's home was assured by the time Norman arrived, but myriad details of funding remained to be solved.

In May 1989, Huerfano County voters approved a $5.3 million bond for construction and equipment for the hospital/veterans home. At that time, architects' renderings called for two adjacent units, the hospital and the nursing home. The following October, another special election was held for start-up and operation of the 24-bed hospital.

The City of Walsenburg donated 16.3 acres and some $1/2 million in cash and in-kind donations. One million dollars was received in grants from organizations and foundations. Another half million came from the Department of Local Affairs. $1.1 million in equipment lease purchases and $250,000 came from Huerfano County.

Davis Partnership of Denver, architects and their consultants, completed the final plans.

M.A. Mortenson Company of Denver received the bid for construction after reducing it from $11,189,000 to an even $10,000,000. Construction began in the summer of 1991 with completion set for Oct. 29, 1992.

The City of Walsenburg built the gas lines with the assistance of engineers from Colorado Interstate Gas, the city suppliers.

Water and sewer lines were constructed to connect into the city's systems.

San Isabel Electrical Association placed new lines for power for the new facility.

The new 90,000 square foot, two-story hospital/home is practically a city in its own right, with its own laundry, bakery, pharmacy, chapel, barber shop, game room, flower shop and Veterans Service office in addition to full hospital and nursing home services and equipment. Separate surgery and emergency rooms will cater to a number of critical needs, while the nursing home offers many comforts and, of course, an incredible view of the mountains, Lathrop State Park and the Walsenburg Golf Course.

Currently, the medical center and nursing home employs 100 but, when the facility is fully staffed, there will be 200 workers in the many offices and services.

Staff doctors are Dr. Joseph Villalon, Dr. Solomon Villalon and John Alessi, William Cluff, David Neece and Christopher Unrein, DOs.

The Hospital Board of Ed Ludvik, chairman, John Davis, vice-chairman, Julia Marchant, Bob Armour and Ann Laney, who have donated so much of their time to make this building a reality, are to be congratulated for their perseverance and community service.

Longtime Veterans Service Officer Ed Joseph, who endeavored for two decades to bring a veteran's nursing home to Walsenburg, will only be a visitor. He has recently resigned his position and the County Commissioners appointed Don Kordis, a former Hospital Board member, to replace him.

Return to the Huerfano County Home Page
© Karen Mitchell